Chapter 1: South Wales 1928
The brief economic boom immediately after the 1914-1918 war was followed by the worst depression in British history since the Industrial Revolution. The "land fit for heroes" boasted one and a half million heroes on the dole, and nowhere was the anguish and despair more keenly felt than in the mining valleys of South Wales. The economy of the valleys was based upon the "black gold" hewn from the bowels of the earth, and exported all over the world. By the early ninteen-twenties the loss of export markets and the increasing use of oil fuel by the merchant navies of the world had rendered coal mining uneconomic. The industry was badly in need of mechanisation and rationalisation, but Government and mine owners were at odds over the future of the industry, and many collieries were closed. Proposals to nationalise royalties and pay a subsidy to the owners were considered and rejected. The growth of electric power removed the necessity for industries to be sited adjacent to coal mines, so that many post-war new factories were built near London and in South-east England. The transition from dangerous mine to demoralising dole queue was an experience shared by families and friends in every smoking Welsh valley. Small wonder that the emancipation of the manual worker continued to be led by the miners. The General Strike of 1926 lasted nine days; the miners’ strike of the same year lasted nine agonising months. The social implications of this economic disaster are vividly portrayed in Richard Llewellyn’s "How Green was my Valley" - unemployment, squalor, starvation, strikes and lockouts, violence and brutality, bitterness and despair, the disruption of family life, the unacceptable face of capitalism, and the survival of body and spirit against impossible odds. The failure of Government to face the realities of the situation was enshrined in the infant National Insurance Scheme, totally inadequate to provide for the basic needs of the unemployed, placing an intolerable burden on local authorities with high levels of unemployment, and therefore least able to provide. Baldwin’s Government was aware of the problem, but unemployment was just one symptom of the terrible malaise which gripped society in the twenties. The proposed solution to the plight of the mining industry was to invite the miners to accept a reduction in wages, and work an extra hour a day. One wonders how the miners of 1978 would greet such a proposition. South Wales could be forgiven for thinking that it was forgotten by Westminster and Whitehall, despite the presence there of its most famous son, Lloyd George.
The history of South Wales between 1914 and 1945 has been described by Gwynfor Evans, President of Plaid Cymru, as "a catalogue of war and depression". Nye Bevan, the volatile member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale, 1929-1960, described how he returned to Tredegar in 1921 after a period at the Labour College in London, and spent the next three years on the dole. By 1930 unemployment in South Wales reached a staggering 33%, despite the steady drift of young men away from the Principality. These young men, growing up in an environment of despondency and despair really had two choices - to join the dole queue, or leave home and look for work and self-respect elsewhere. Some scraped together sufficient to buy tickets to various parts of the British Empire or the Americas. Others sought work nearer at hand, in the larger English cities where new industries were beginning to flourish. Some traveled by train, others cycled or walked, sleeping rough or in work houses and doss houses en route. They left home with an understandable bitterness in their hearts, a bitterness in which was sown the seed of industrial strife for fifty years to come.
Bitterness often breeds violence unless there is some safety valve. A job, a girl friend, marriage, family life, putting down roots in a new society, these are recognisable safety valves; but to the young men on the move from the valleys in the nineteen-twenties they were beyond reach. Yet many of these Welsh men enjoyed a priceless safety valve, developed in home and chapel, in eisteddfod and Gymanfa Ganu: the gift of song is a tranquilliser beyond price. Welshmen forget their bitterness and despair when they unite in song, whether on the terraces at Cardiff Arms Park or in the chapel choir. Some of these singing Welshmen arrived in Oxford, searching for work, in 1928, and have been there ever since.